As part of the 2019 Chichester Festival, 8 Hotels by Nicholas Wright receives its world premiere. The story revolves around 3 actors and a theatre director who are touring the southern states of America with a staging of Othello.
The 8 hotels of the title are those that the actors stay in as the tour progresses from city to city. All the scenes take place in a hotel bedroom – a screen behind the bed advises us of the change of location and date, making the nimble changes of bedspreads by the stagehands a touch unnecessary.
The author notes that the play is based “on real events” but makes no “claim to be an accurate record of them and much of the action is invented”. What is true is that in 1944 and 1945, Paul Robeson, Uta Hagen and her husband Jose Ferrer were starring in a production of Othello, directed by Margaret Webster, which, following a successful Broadway run, embarked on an American tour including the Southern states where the “Jim Crow” laws dictated segregation between black and white people.
At the heart of this story is great passion and even greater betrayal. During the tour, Robeson and Hagen were conducting an affair, a drama filled situation for 1944 without the added challenge of a white woman and a black man conducting an affair in a place and at a time where they could have both suffered in the event of exposure. Ferrer is having an affair with another member of the cast and there are hints of a strong bond of brotherly love between Ferrer and Robeson. Potentially this has all the elements of a Shakespearean drama played out by a cast touring a great Shakespearean drama. The mirroring of each characters onscreen and offscreen performances should be the basis for a gripping play, so it is extraordinary that it is so flat and lifeless.
The method of having the actors speak to the audience to set up each scene makes the action stop/ start. There is no dramatic tension built – we know very early about the various affairs and all the characters seem remarkably sanguine about each other’s behaviour. Is it really possible that none of them confronted each other? Working together, travelling together and staying in the same hotels (at one point due to a shortage of rooms, Robeson and Ferrer are about to share a bed) would have created a claustrophobic atmosphere that must have been unbearable, but we see none of that.
Early in the play, Uta says that Jose refers to Robeson as a man wearing a coat with 40 pockets keeping all parts of himself secreted away in different pockets, but all we see is a cliché – a philanderer, liar and extremely violent man.
Robeson exists only as he interacts with the other characters, in one scene, Robeson, twenty years Uta’s senior and a veteran of the stage and screen, is seen being given an acting lesson by Uta who comments that while Robeson’s political activities are admirable they are exhausting him and thus stopping him from being a truly great Othello. To hear this man’s achievements referenced in such a way is toe-curling stuff.
The “white saviour” scene towards the end of the play is deeply uncomfortable, as Uta claims that Robeson’s wife reached out to her – his ex-mistress, who he has not seen for 5 years – to somehow save him from himself.
The life story of Robeson is absolutely extraordinary; his father, who was born a slave, escaped to the northern states, settling in New Jersey and becoming a Reverend. Robeson Jnr was a star student and college football player who became a lawyer upon graduation before moving into performing. He was a titan of the civil rights movement. His biography is just too vast and mind-blowing to attempt to summarise here.
Margaret (Peggy) Webster was a British woman who made her name as a director of Shakespeare in American theatre, before being virtually destroyed by the McCarthy witch-hunt. Uta Hagen was a German immigrant who had a stellar acting and teaching career while Jose Ferrer was the first Hispanic actor to win an Oscar and went on to have a great career as a director. He married five times, including twice to Rosemary Clooney!
Each of these individuals had fascinating lives that could be plays themselves. Unfortunately, this production is significantly less than the sum of these individual parts. Given that the author worked with Uta Hagen and, as a drama student, saw Paul Robeson in Othello in Stratford in 1959 it is even more extraordinary that he has painted these characters as so one dimensional.
A very disappointing play which could have been so much more.
Reviewed by Emma Heath
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